Time to fix Hong Kong’s wasteful, throwaway society

Peter Kammerer says our modern craze for built-in obsolescence has got to end and, even without the manufacturers on board, we should start promoting a fix-it culture

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 October, 2016, 11:58am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 October, 2016, 7:01pm

Advice imparted by an elderly relative when I was a teenager meant little at the time: if you want to have a good life, learn a skill that involves using your hands. I paid no regard, beyond taking a touch-typing course, and got by nicely enough until I came to Hong Kong.

Now, however, the shoddiness of workmanship in the flats I have lived in, the low standards of those called on to carry out repairs and the declining quality of products have made me wish I had given those pearls of wisdom more attention. Worse, there aren’t too many options other than throwing out and replacing.

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The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 saga says much about the world we live in. Mobile phones, among a host of electrical products on the market, are seemingly built with obsolescence in mind, their lifespans down from what once seemed like a lifetime to a mere few years. The release of software upgrades and apps all but forces the replacement of models for the sake of speed and trouble-free operation. But when quality control is so low that they begin to smoke and even catch fire with enough intensity to cause injury and property damage, as has happened with the Note 7, it’s plainly time for a strategy rethink.

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I’m not sure who’s at fault: manufacturers or consumers. Competition is pushing the boundaries of creativity and innovation and the big corporations behind mainstream electrical goods are constantly striving to outdo one another in the name of profits and market share.

Repairing has become a thing of the past; it’s more convenient and less expensive to simply upgrade

The most loyal of customers of brands like Apple will always upgrade whenever a new product is launched. But the demand for better or merely different features and lower prices also drives companies to bring out that which is claimed to be faster, smarter and cooler.

The result is that repairing has become a thing of the past; it’s more convenient and less expensive to simply upgrade. That doesn’t apply only to electrical products, either. If a tap in the bathroom fails, the heel of a shoe falls off or a sofa leg buckles, the response is most likely to be to throw the thing away and get another.

The difficulty of finding someone who can carry out repairs is one reason; the consumer society we have become is another.

Hong Kong’s government wants to engender a recycling culture to cut down on domestic waste going to landfills, but I’ve yet to hear it push the idea of repairing and mending.

Authorities elsewhere are, though, with ideas like fix-it cafes and a thriving repairing culture emerging across Europe and North America. Sweden has taken it a step further with tax breaks being offered to repair rather than replace.

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There’s no doubt that this has a knock-on effect in the countries with cheap labour where products are manufactured and assembled, but in local communities, employment is being created.

It used to be like that when Hong Kong was a poorer place, but it now takes some effort to find the right person to get an item fixed. Most of the time, it’s an elderly person with skills and the desire to make extra cash, and what they’re doing is at times considered illegal by the powers that be.

They can be found in underground passes mending umbrellas, down alleyways weaving baskets, tucked away in the back of wet markets mending clothes or in stairwells sharpening knives.

I’m sure there are long-retired furniture makers out there as well as people who know how to make doors for humid weather conditions and painters with the know-how to ensure that wall coverings don’t start to peel off after six months.

Whether air conditioners are still being made that don’t need replacing after three or four years is probably quite another matter, though.

But what is certain is that if the Hong Kong government is genuinely interested in creating a society that cares as much for its surroundings and the environment as living comfortably with the latest gizmos, it has to promote a fix-it culture, rather than a throwaway one.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post